There has been so much heated nonsense spoken and written about Real Madrid’s 3-1 Champions League final win over Liverpool in Kiev that there are some missed or ignored items that must be focused on. And they will be here.
Let’s begin with the opening goal.
I’m not contesting that it makes Karim Benzema a footballing genius to have scored it, but the fact that Liverpool goalkeeper Loris Karius made such an atrocious series of judgmental errors in gifting the holders the lead has obscured credit that needs to flow to the much-maligned striker.
Given how the modern game is officiated, Benzema should have been in a no-win situation. Karius should have known this.
The Frenchman was isolated on the edge of Liverpool’s box. Karius had plenty of options about how to deal with what faced him. Yes, he had every right to try to move the ball sharply to reduce Madrid to nine outfield players by bypassing Benzema. But Karius had a choice of three red shirts, options via which he could have cut his opponent out of the game with just a scintilla more effort and concentration.
With reference to keeper protection in the modern game, had Karius shaped to kick long or tempted Benzema to take another couple of paces towards him, the referee would almost inevitably have called a foul. Keepers get protected in football more than facts and truth do.
Where the credit comes is that once Liverpool’s maladroit goalie makes a bad choice, Benzema reads it.
Benzema is still a regulation distance away from Karius. The odds are vastly against him, but he not only gambles correctly, he reacts with tremendous agility and speed, but then also gets his leg into a position where he can be strong enough for the rebound to take the ball not only towards the goal but in.
What’s more, to block a keeper throwing out to his right, the obvious foot for the striker to use is his left. But that would have cost Benzema a split-second more to effect. He instinctively raises what has been his planted, standing-weight foot and lunges.
As I say, it’s not an act of genius, but it’s what every single coach, amateur or pro, wishes he could teach his footballers: Stay sharp, think, react quicker than the other guy. Or, as Bill Shankly and Bob Paisley used to teach those Liverpool players who dominated England and Europe: “Find the dope”.
They taught that, especially when the ball goes dead, lesser players breathe out, they relax, they drop their concentration just a millimetre. Shankly and Paisley urged their players to always be waiting for just such an infinitesimal relaxation, and to pounce. It’s what Benzema did, and both of those Liverpool greats would have recognised it.
Karius had the ball in his hands, so he relaxed. He thought that there was no danger. He lost focus by a scintilla. It was enough.
I understand the mawkish horrors of watching someone fail catastrophically on the biggest sporting stage. There will have been huge tracts of the worldwide audience both thrilled with schadenfreude at watching an error of such gigantic proportions, and then instantly contrite with the guilt of having felt the dark emotion of enjoying someone else’s hardship.
One of the most common nightmares is having turned up at a vital exam without studying for it. Another is waking up sweating having dreamt that suddenly you’re naked in public, don’t understand why, and everyone is watching. That’s what Karius actually lived through, in effect.
But there’s no way, in my humble view, that sympathy for or outrage about the “dope” (depending on whether you’re an angry Liverpool fan or not) can detract from appreciations of Benzema’s cat-like agility and anticipation.
By the way, it was his 56th Champions League goal in 87 competition starts. Only three players — Raul, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo — have outscored him in this elite tournament. This from a man Sir Alex Ferguson said was “too expensive” when he joined Madrid in 2009 for €30 million, and Gary Lineker recently reckoned was overrated.
There has been some truly ridiculous stuff written about Sergio Ramos in the aftermath of yet another rule-stretching, all-in performance from the Madrid captain.
For example, thanks to one German TV station highlighting it, there has been quite the furore on social media about Ramos clipping Karius a couple of minutes before the opening goal. Some have tried to suggest that A) it was a deliberate action by Ramos, and B) that there was some correlation between that and Liverpool’s keeper making his awful blunder.
What I find stunning is that no one whom I’ve seen catcalling Ramos over that incident has seen fit to note that as the Spaniard runs in towards goal in order to try to connect with a Benzema cut-back, it’s Virgil Van Dijk who shoves Ramos, which results in Madrid’s captain surging towards the ground.
Firstly, does Ramos then knowingly try to “leave one” on Karius once he’s been shoved? You may have a case. But is his proximity to the keeper solely thanks to Van Dijk? Definitely. Had the referee seen Van Dijk’s shove, might it have been a penalty to Madrid? Yes. Finally, does Ramos make enough contact with Karius to have caused the German, who’s up and about pretty instantly, any significant impairment? Do me a favour: Grow up.
Even if, hypothetically, that were the case, then the fault would lie with Van Dijk choosing, illogically, to shove Ramos when Benzema’s cut-back was about to be effectively blocked. So that moment was an instance when a player chooses an action outside the rules, without really having any cognisance of what the ultimate consequence might be.
Which, yes, you’ve guessed it, takes us to the moment when Mohamed Salah’s shoulder is injured thanks to Ramos tugging him to the ground awkwardly.
On the idea that Ramos was deliberately trying to injure him, I’m not going to waste much time. Ramos breaks the rules. Ramos is ultra-streetwise. This column is not a defence of the Real Madrid captain; it’s an attempt to bring some football realism into the debate.
Firstly, this was the kind of challenge you see regularly across the European game and that, frankly, wouldn’t usually have serious consequences for either player. This one did, no question, and I fervently wish that Salah had completed 90 vibrant minutes and, for all I care about the matter, scored a hat trick.
Secondly, if you take a snapshot of the instant when the foul is made (with referee Milorad Mazic positioned for a perfect view but not the least bit interested in a booking), then you’ll see a commanding piece of information about why Ramos wouldn’t let go.
He wouldn’t risk the idea of Salah twisting free, or getting up swiftly and taking the ball away from the moment of contact. Salah has made an inside run across the pitch from the right. Ramos has gone with him, but the Egyptian, if he controls and twists with the ball, will have exposed his marker and gained perhaps two yards. Two crucial yards.
If Salah turns with the ball, or gets up quicker than Ramos because the attempted foul fails, then Liverpool are four vs. two. Just think about that: Scoreless against a team that has scary firepower, that has dominated the first 20 or so minutes, and it’s about to be four vs. two.
Roberto Firmino has drifted off Luka Modric and Casemiro, James Milner is wide right unmarked (surprise, surprise) by Marcelo, and Sadio Mane is being watched by Dani Carvajal, who is accompanied only by Raphael Varane. Is a definite goal on the cards given the distance involved? No, that’s a little too strong. But is it the kind of situation against which Madrid will have coached, video-analysed and, frankly, prayed to avoid? Yes.
So Ramos commits a foul, no question. And he won’t let Salah go, no question. But the aim is to prevent a disastrous situation, not to injure.
Do guys like Ramos accept one less dangerous opponent on the pitch as a bonus for foul play? Yes. Was his action one any hard-nosed, serial winner would have taken? Yes.
If you say no, then you’re either partial or dreadfully lacking information. I’ve been watching them do it all my life, and some of them — just for information — played for Liverpool.
But there was much more either missed, obscured or ignored by the contentious nature of what happened and by the shimmering beauty of Gareth Bale’s first goal.
In comparison to Karius, Keylor Navas’ two terrific opening-minutes saves from Trent Alexander-Arnold? The first brave and athletic, the second so superb through a cluster of legs and bodies.
Left-back Marcelo yet again changing a big Champions League match, this time with a right-footed cross. There are still so many players earning vast sums, particularly in the UK, despite having one good foot and are like flamingos with the other — good for standing. Marcelo is routinely roasted by the under-informed in the UK media, continuously pointed out as only a liability because his defensive GPS long ago broke down. Yet his right-footed cross that Bale described as “at a perfect height” was the penultimate moment in a 20-pass move back and forward across the pitch for Madrid’s all-time great goal.
Twenty passes. Please, let that not be obscured.
Andy Robertson’s outrageous penalty-box block to prevent Ronaldo scoring? It was a tackle for the ages. Athletically constructed, clinically executed and, temporarily, it kept Liverpool with just a glimmer of opportunity. Why has it not been the subject of adoration from everyone who witnessed the game, professionally or as fans?
Because we live in an age where outrage, complaint, vilification and raw emotion too often govern over honest, sang-froid, clinical analysis.
Graham Hunter covers Spain for ESPN FC and Sky Sports. Author of “Barca: The Making of the Greatest Team in the World.” Twitter: @BumperGraham.